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The evidence: dramatic drop in new ABC screen content confirmed

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Dr Michael Ward of the University of Sydney, a former senior ABC executive, has been poring over the figures.

In this disturbing article for ABC Alumni, he confirms what we’ve all suspected.  First release, non-news and current affairs screen content on the ABC’s main TV channel has dropped by 40% in ten years, and on all ABC platforms by around 20%.

If you’re looking for evidence that the ABC desperately needs its funding restored, THIS IS IT!

41% decline in ‘non-news and current affairs’1 first release Australian content on the ABC’s main channel since 2014. 

by Michael Ward, 1 March 2024

There has been a major, progressive decline in first release Australian content screened on ABC platforms. While news and current affairs content continues at a high level (due mainly to the simulcast of News channel programs), in 2022/23 the ABC broadcast just 630 hours of other genres of new Australian programs compared to 1,060 hours in 2013/14. While the decline has been occurring over the past decade, there has been an even more significant downturn since 2019/20. The most significant drop is on the ABC’s main channel. However, the decline is across ABC channels and platforms: ABC TV main channel, ABC 2 (ABC Kids & ABC TV Plus), ABC Me, ABC iview and overall (excluding ABC News channel).  

This study presents findings about the level and mix of Australian screen content on the ABC, comparing the change over the past decade. However, even when compared to earlier years, the recent downward trend is significant. For example, first release Australian content on the ABC’s main channel, such as arts, comedy, documentaries, factual, natural history, science, religion, Indigenous, education, sport and drama programs averaged over 1,000 hours annually in the decade from 2000/01. The mix included programs such as After The Fires, Catalyst, Critical Mass, Enough Rope, Message Stick, Strictly Dancing, The Hopman Cup tennis, and Wild Australasia. In these years, the split between hours of news and current affairs content and all other genres was roughly equal; with first release news and current affairs programs making up about 16 per cent of the schedule and other genres also delivering 16 per cent.  

The study is an initial attempt to understand if the recent history has implications for the future of Australian public service media. To gain a clearer insight into what is happening and its importance, this study analyses hours of output of Australian content, first release and repeat programming hours and the shift in the genre mix that has constituted that programming. It focuses on the main broadcast outlets but also considers whether there is a shift in program output from traditional to multichannels and the on-demand platform, iview.  

Annual report data on the ABC main channel, ABC2, ABC ME and iview, (for which hours of output have been included in annual reports since 2015/16) have been reviewed.[2] There has been no analysis of ABC News 24 hours as the ABC does not report that channel’s output.   

1. The importance of original, local content in broadcasting and media policy  

Rules about local content have been part of Australian media policy since 1942 for commercial radio and 1963 for commercial television. While a long-standing commitment to public service broadcasting independence means that the ABC and SBS have been regulated through their legislation, the ABC has consistently exceeded requirements set for commercial radio and television. Figure 1 shows that the overall level (first release and repeat) of Australian hours broadcast on the ABC’s main channel from 2013/14 to 2023/24 has exceeded the commercial quota minimum of 55 per cent, averaging 74 per cent over the ten years.   

Figure 1: ABC TV first release and repeat Australian content percentage 2013/14 to 2023/24 (6am – midnight)

Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2013/14 to 2022/23.  

However, the achievement of high levels of Australian content, representing both first release and repeat Australian programs, masks the decline of first release Australian programs across a range of genres. While total first release hours have remained stable, there has been a major shift in the program mix.  

2.  ABC TV ‘main channel’ first release Australian content  

The picture is most striking when first release programs are examined. Figure 2 shows the 41 per cent decline, or 430 hours in the past decade, of non-news and current affairs content [3] on the ABC’s main television service. Genres such as drama, documentaries, entertainment and factual programs dropped from 1,060 hours in 2013/14 to 630 hours in 2022/23.  

In 2013/14, 16 per cent of ABC main channel programs consisted of genres such as arts, documentary, drama, entertainment, factual, Indigenous, religion and sport. By 2022/23, ‘non-news-caff’ first release Australian content comprised 9.6 per cent of the total annual channel output of over 6,500 hours.   

Figure 2: ABC main channel ‘non-news-caff’ first release Australian content: hours & % of total output (6 am-midnight).  


Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2013/14 to 2022/23 and data in ABC submissions. 2017/18 and 2018/19 estimated hours for 6am to midnight. 

Figure 2 shows there were two stages in the decline over the last decade. Firstly, the major drop of 409 hours from 1060 hours in 2013/14 to 651 hours in 2016/17. Then, after recovering slightly to 749 hours in 2019/20, there was another decline of 119 hours to 630 hours in 2022/23.  The drop has occurred across most genres, with substantial declines between 2013/14 and 2022/23. The single exception was in documentary output, which increased from 44 hours in 2013/14 to 57 hours in 2022/23.  

Table 1: ABC main channel first release ‘non-news-caff’ genre program hours   

Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2013/14 to 2022/23.  

A second issue that arises when analysing the output is changing definitions. For example, ‘drama’ hours now include scripted comedy, which was previously a category of its own. So, the 42 hours in 2022/23 is an even greater decline when compared, for example, to output in the early 2000s when ‘drama’ averaged 53 hours and ‘comedy’ averaged almost 30 hours.  

3. ABC platforms (ABC TV, ABC 2, ABC ME, iview): Australian first release content  

First release Australian (‘non-news-caff’) content is also down across all channels and platforms (21 % decline compared to 41 % on main channel)  

 The decline noted above on the ABC main channel has not been offset by increases on multichannels and iview, with total ‘non-news-caff’ content down 21 per cent from 2015/16 to 2022/23. The comparison begins in 2015/16 because the ABC only began reporting ABC3 (ME) and iview program data from that year.  

As Figure 3 shows, in 2015/16, there were 1,210 hours of first release programs in the genres of children’s, arts, documentary, drama, entertainment, factual, Indigenous, religion and sport. By last financial year this had declined by 276 hours to 934 hours of ‘non-news caff’ genres. Hours of output remained relatively stable from 2015/16 to 2018/19 before beginning to significantly decline from that year. Despite a small increase in 2022/23 compared to the previous year, the overall trend is downward.   

Figure 3: ABC platforms*: hours first release, non-news caff Australian content (6am-midnight)   

Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2013/14 to 2022/23 and data in ABC submissions. 2017/18 and 2018/19 estimated hours for 6am to midnight. 

*ABC main, ABC2, ABC3, iview.  

Again, as for ABC's main channel, the drop has occurred across most genres. As seen in Table 2, the exceptions were in documentary output, which increased from 48 hours in 2015/16 to 67 hours in 2022/23, and factual, which increased from 94 hours to 153 hours over the same period.  

Table 2 ABC all channels and iview (excluding ABC News24) release ‘non-news-caff’ genre program hours first release program hours (6am-midnight) 

Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2013/14 to 2022/23.  

In contrast to the genres listed in Table 2, News increased by 113 hours from 1753 to 1866 hours (2015/16 to 2022/23), while Current Affairs increased by 64 hours, from 569 to 633 hours (2015/16 to 2022/23).  


4.  ABC platforms (ABC TV, ABC 2, ABC ME, iview): total Australian content (incl news-caff) 

Figure 4 shows the total first release hours across the channels and platform, as well as the genres making up the total output (current affairs: blue bar, news: orange, ‘non-news caff’: gray).  

When total Australian first release content is analysed across all platforms, it is discernible that after rising from 3532 hours in 2015/16 to 4052 hours in 2020/21 there has been a big drop to 3433 hours in 2022/23, the lowest level recorded since the publication of data for all platforms. 


Figure 4: ABC platforms first release Australian content - hours & total output (6am-midnight)  

Source: Author’s research based on ABC annual reports, 2016 to 2023 and data in ABC submissions. 2017/18 and 2018/19 estimated hours for 6am to midnight. 

In summary, while ABC annual reports show total Australian content increasing, there has been a severe decline in first release programs across several genres. The graphs and tables above show that the decline has been most serious since 2020. This is not surprising when an ABC statement from June 2020 is noted.  

In announcing its five-year plan in June 2020, the ABC foregrounded “proposals to address budget cuts while protecting the Corporation’s independence and Charter responsibilities for all Australians” (Anderson, 2020). ABC Managing Director David Anderson specifically noted the impact of the then “Federal Government’s indexation pause, which cut the ABC’s budget by $84m over three years with an ongoing reduction of $41m a year from 2022” (Anderson, 2020), and the ongoing annual impact of 2014 cuts of around $64 million. As I and others have noted, by the middle of 2024 those reductions will have cut over $1 billion, from the ABC’s operational funding (See Table 3 below).  

Table 3: Cumulative impact of funding cuts on the ABC 2014 - 2024.  

Source: Author’s research, annual ABC portfolio budget statements  

Small funding increases by the Labor government since its election in 2022 have provided around $63 million and are scheduled to deliver an extra $228 million over four years to 2025/26, compared to what the ABC would have received under the previous government.   

Other research has shown the seriousness of the ABC funding problem. When adjusted for inflation, the real level of funding for the ABC is lower now than in the 1980s (Ricketson & Mullins, 2021). When the Hawke government was elected in March 1983, the Fraser government’s last budget had allocated $274 million in operational funding for the ABC. In 2023/24 the ABC’s budget, adjusted to 1983/84 dollars, is $251 million;4 $23 million lower than forty years ago.   

When the severity of the funding reductions is considered, it appears the ABC has little choice other than to cut expenditure. That certainly was the stated intention of the previous government; to reduce ABC spending. The surprising aspect is how muted the ABC’s leadership has been about the cause and their contribution to difficulties in meeting ABC legislative obligations and core public service media principles. The strategy seems to be to attribute significant reductions in first run content to other causes, for example the need to move to a ‘digital first‘ strategy rather than to government -imposed cuts to the ABC’s funding.  

Changes in the mix and level of first release Australian content, whether on traditional outlets or digital platforms, have implications for how the ABC meets goals of comprehensiveness (wide appeal) and complementarity (for specific ‘audiences’) that are core to its legislative and strategic obligations, especially that its programs “contribute to a sense of national identity” and reflect “the cultural diversity of the Australian community” [ABC Act 6(1)(a)(i)].    


By focusing on the decline in genres other than news and current affairs, this paper does not suggest that news and current affairs programming levels are adequate or appropriate in meeting public service media principles. While important, analysis of the impact of funding cuts and strategic decisions to remove or reduce ‘television’ programs such as Lateline, The Drum, and state-based 7.30 is outside the scope of this article. It remains an important project to gather and present data about these genres as well as ABC audio output, and the ABC’s international broadcasting activity, to build a comprehensive picture of the current state of play regarding ABC content and the implications for the future of Australian public service media.   

This brief analysis of ABC screen output emerged from a more detailed examination of Australian public service media policy, its framing principles and evolution in the context of increasing privatisation and marketisation of public policy that has attempted to marginalise public service media. Policy and strategy are given substance in the lived experience of Australians, in this instance, through what programs are commissioned, made, and ‘programmed’ on channels and platforms, including the range and diversity of genres and the amount of first release and Australian content delivered.   

It is true that the ABC, like every other media organisation, is grappling with the consequences of the digital revolution. But delivering new Australian made content across a range of genres remains crucial to the ABC’s role as a publicly funded national broadcaster. If it doesn’t have the funds to do so, it should be saying so, loudly and clearly. It is to be hoped that the new Chair Kim Williams will begin to do so as soon as he begins his job in March 2024.  


To download this article as a PDF, click here

Statement of interest:  

Michael Ward has recently completed a PhD in media and communications from The University of Sydney, about media policy, women’s sports media, the ABC, and national identity. From 1999-2017 he worked at the ABC, including as a senior executive in the television division and operations group.  


[1] Measured as a percentage of total programs hours (Australian first release & repeat, overseas first release and repeat) broadcast 6am-midnight (Sources, relevant ABC annual reports).

[2] Since 2013/14 ABC ‘television’ channels have variously been called: first service: ‘ABC Television’, ABC1, ABC TV; the second television service:  ABC2, ABC Kids, ABC4Kids, ABC Comedy and ABC TV Plus; the third television service: ABC 3, ABC ME (from September 2016), as well as the fourth service: ABC news channel, ABC News 24, ABC News (from 2017).

[3] The term ‘non-News and Current Affairs’ [abbreviated to ‘non-news-caff’] is used here to described program genres such as Children’s Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Factual and Indigenous. These programs were historically commissioned, acquired and/or produced by the ABC’s Television division and are now commissioned, usually from independent producers, by the Content Division. The hours of output of Australian and overseas programs in these genres has been reported by the ABC in annual reports.

For a further explanation of the analysis presented in this study, click here

Michael Ward

Michael Ward teaches media as part of Boston University’s global program and is a sessional academic at the University of Sydney, teaching global and digital media trends and policy.

He has completed a PhD in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His research thesis is entitled Women's sports media, Australian media policy and the ABC: an examination of discourses of sport and the relevance of national identity, 1981 to 2018.

In 2018 he was awarded a Master’s degree (MA [Research]) from Queensland University of Technology, for his thesis: ABC Television Sport: Public Broadcasting, Innovation and Nation Building.

He is a graduate in Communication Studies from Murdoch University, Western Australia and studied media and film at Griffith University, Queensland.

Prior to his teaching and research, he worked for 18 years at the ABC as a senior executive.  For ten years he was ABC Television’s Head of Policy. He has also worked in Australian screen media policy, holding senior positions with federal government agencies, the Australian Film Commission and the Australian Film Finance Corporation.

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